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Netflix’s ‘Cowboy Bebop’ reignites a debate: Is Jet Black a Black anime character?

Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black in Netflix’s live-action adaptation of “Cowboy Bebop.” (Geoffrey Short/Netflix)

Actor Mustafa Shakir sounds starry-eyed when he explains why he said yes to playing Jet Black, one of the central characters of Netflix’s new “Cowboy Bebop.” Shakir had become a devotee of the anime show, which originally aired in Japan in the late ’90s and then helped launch Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block in the fall of 2001. “My thought was, this is like a gateway drug into anime,” he says, which was the case for many U.S. viewers who had yet to understand that not all anime is kiddie fare.

Shakir, best known for playing Bushmaster on “Luke Cage,” was particularly intrigued by the way this anime paid loving tribute to American jazz, most explicitly through the character of Jet, an ex-cop and the paternal leader of an interstellar bounty-hunting crew, who named his spaceship — what else? — the Bebop.

But translating “Cowboy Bebop” to live action and satisfying the sky-high fan expectations around this beloved space-western was an imposing endeavor. The most persistent question on set was, “Is this Bebop-y enough?” (“That’s a real term, you know?” Shakir deadpans.) At the same time, Shakir — conscious of the stylistic differences between the fantasy realms of anime and Hollywood — had to balance capturing the spirit of the original while making sure that his performance still made sense in live action.

What makes an anime character, well, animated, can read as a caricature on screen. “There’s obviously moments of heightened expressions,” he says, “but in anime it’s obviously a bit more punched out. To make that transition [on-screen], it’s not easy.”

“Cowboy Bebop” adds yet another layer to that debate: What happens when a production studio tries to assign race to a pop culture artifact where race is hinted at but not always made explicit? The race and appearance of all the main characters have been debated on Twitter, Reddit and TikTok, but incensed online commentators went as far as smearing Shakir’s casting as “blackwashing” — a play on “whitewashing” and an accusation often lobbed at Black anime fandom in cosplay and fan art.

The original “Cowboy Bebop” does feature explicitly dark-skinned characters the Netflix version made sure to include. And in the accompanying art book, “The Jazz Messengers,” series creator Shinichiro Watanabe said that when developing the anime, he “paid a lot of attention to skin color.” But the original anime never mentions or discusses race; it stands to reason that in a near future where Earth was all but obliterated, its ideas about race would have vanished along with it.

That makes “Cowboy Bebop” part of a larger phenomenon observed by scholars like Amy Lu, associate professor at Northeastern University. In a 2009 study, Lu asked more than 1,000 people to identify the race of nearly 350 anime protagonists, based solely on images of their faces. “Cowboy Bebop’s” Spike Spiegel was one of them. In the original anime, Spike “did mention that he was born on Mars, but he never talks about where his parents came from or his cultural heritage,” Lu says. (Similarly, all the show specifies about Jet is that he’s from a Jupiter satellite, Ganymede.)

So Lu classified Spike as “other.” But Asian survey respondents were more likely to say that Spike was Asian, based on his skin color. And White participants tended to guess that Spike was White, based on his eye shape. (John Cho plays Spike in the new Netflix show.)

Moreover, if an anime character was drawn as racially ambiguous, “people rely on the most immediate sort of self-construct, which is their own face,” Lu says. She coined a term for this phenomenon: “own race projection,” or “the perception that [racially] ambiguous characters are from the perceiver’s own racial and ethnic group.” Such behavior could help explain why, for 75 percent of the characters featured in Lu’s survey, “people just don’t have a consensus on where they come from.”

Beau Billingslea, a Black voice actor who provided the original English-language voice of Jet, would rather have this character be seen as “color-neutral.”

“When I first started in anime, there were hardly any anime characters that were persons of color,” Billingslea says. “If [producers] stuck to a rule that only persons of color would voice characters of color, I never would have worked.”

When he began picking up voice acting work halfway through his nearly 40-year acting career, Billingslea regarded it as a side gig. Some of his earliest work was credited to John Billingslea, as if to keep it separate from his on-screen brand.

Billingslea grew to appreciate how anime spared him from being typecast — or even having to be conscious of that possibility — as a Black actor. He and “Cowboy Bebop’s” producers agreed that Jet’s voice would simply be “my voice, and I tweak it a little bit.” (Indeed, while Billingslea was already in his 50s when he voiced Jet, Jet’s voice is weathered more from bad luck and chain smoking than from age.)

Shakir respects his elder’s outlook. “Other than his love for jazz and his name, Jet could be anybody,” he begins. But mid-sentence, he second-guesses his train of thought. “I know some Japanese jazz aficionados whose knowledge would rival most Black people,” he says with a laugh.

Going into his audition, and then during filming aboard a life-size recreation of Jet’s beaten-down spaceship, Shakir was most concerned with matching “a certain tone and timbre” that he came to associate with his character.

“I was totally informed by [Billingslea’s] voice acting, which matches the image,” he says. “Jet, and the way he comes across in the voice acting, gave me something to play with.”

“It’s still color-neutral,” he adds. “I even feel that about the tone in his voice. He borderlines Mr. Incredible [of “The Incredibles”]; it’s in that range. So it could be anybody. It’s more authoritative than it is Black or White.”

Viewers often call for more diversity on TV because they want to see themselves reflected in pop culture. Shakir understands that desire.

“I love characters who are intelligent, and especially people of color who can talk that talk. It’s just fun,” Shakir says. “That was cool, because Jet gets real nerdy and I’m like, yes, I totally dig the nerd, because I am one.”

But he makes sure not to call Jet a Black anime character outright, as if to be respectful of Billingslea’s characterization. “There’s a lot of blerds, or people of color who are not stereotypically what it means to be Black. So to have that representation is cool, and Jet — well, the character that I’m playing — is that.”

“No matter who has been chosen for the live action, especially for those kinds of ambiguous characters, there will be some anime fans, guaranteed, who will not be happy with that choice,” Lu, the researcher, says of a group that’s already conditioned to be skeptical of live-action adaptations.

Bearing that in mind, Lu — who ranks “Cowboy Bebop” as her favorite anime of all time — has her own criteria for adaptations going forward. “I would like to go beyond this visual resemblance, or similarities, to a character, to the actor’s performance,” she says. “Ultimately, it is the arc, emotions and performance that actually make a character three-dimensional, rather than just the look.”

Shakir’s portrayal of Jet may not be what some fans imagined, but if there is anything that playing the role has taught him, it is that appearances can be deceiving.

Fans of the ’90s series will have plenty to discuss and debate, with what was kept and changed from the original. Yet for all the creative liberties that this adaptation takes, Shakir’s performance as Jet should feel instantly familiar.

“Playing on Jet’s emotional response, because he has so much to respond to emotionally, helped to just humanize him,” Shakir says. “Look at this guy. He’s got a plate on his face, a scar and a metal arm. It’d be real easy to go into that realm where you don’t see his human heart. Grounding him, I think, helped. And that was my goal.”

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